amazing beautiful sentences

happy-4 copyHow do you pick the most beautiful sentences in Literature?

  • Are beautiful sentences full of nice turns of phrase?
  • Or are beautiful sentences full of wisdom?
  • Must beautiful sentences be full of risk and ambition, or can they be subtle and simple?
  • Must beautiful sentences make you feel something?

As I was combing through thousands of lovely sentences to make this list, through my library of books and internet lists and polling my writer friends, I decided that the best sentences accomplished a combination of those four criteria. Still, I was swamped with possibilities.

To limit the sheer number of beautiful sentences, I created some artificial boundaries:

  • I limited myself to modern authors, authors writing in the last 50 years or so, because there are many websites that list classic lines of literature and I don’t want to repeat them.
  • I’m also limiting the list to one submission per author.
  • I’ve also decided to opt for beautiful sentences under 100 words, because anything past that becomes its own beast, and it’s unfair for a 10 word sentence to have to compare to an epic monster sentence (If you want longer sentences, look at the longest sentences in English).
  • I’m picking virtually all of these from fiction, not nonfiction (with the exception of one — find it if you can), and I’m not picking first lines of books because those deserve their own list.


Let’s dig deeper into these four criteria:

  1. Beautiful Phrasing
    • I find beautiful language necessary but not sufficient. Few sentences below use prosaic language, but if they do, they acheive beauty by the complexity of their construction, the way the sentence unspools. But if a sentence is only beautiful, and doesn’t stretch for anything more, I feel admiration but not love. After all, there are millions of gorgeous lines of prose, and we only have so much attention.
  2. Wisdom
    • By wisdom I mean truth, insight, ideas. A sentence functioning as an aphorism. On many of the lists I found around the internet, such as the Buzzfeed list of 51 Beautiful Sentences and the Esquire list of 70 Sentences, this was their main criteria. The language didn’t have to be lovely or ingenious, but they wanted an idea to hoist its flag. For me, wisdom is a secondary consideration after beauty. I would pick a beautiful sentence over a wise sentence any day, because a wise sentence treats language as a mere vehicle while a beautiful sentence elevates language as the primary goal.
  3. Ambition
    • Ambition isn’t just length, although it often appears that way. Ambitious sentences attempt new forms, rebel against syntax and grammar rules, and innovate with language. I love ambitious sentences, but it’s not essential for a perfect sentence. In this list I’ve tried to find a mix of both formally ambitious sentences and sentences that stay well within the rules but create beauty in orderly and masterful ways.
  4. Sentiment
    • No one talks about emotion as a primary consideration for a good sentence. But I look for whether a good sentence elicits sadness or joy, awe or horror. I don’t just want to admire the lines and curves of the prose, I want a string to be plucked deep inside me. An emotionless sentence can look perfectly fine standing on its own, but line them up end to end and they’re the death of a book. One sentiment that is often overlooked in beautiful sentences is humor — a few of the sentences below are quite funny, but I wish I had more.

I’m trying to avoid one-trick ponies in my selections below: a sentence that does one good thing is wonderful, but it isn’t the best sentence that could be written.

I’m also not going for what I would call an “instructional sentence.” I’d compiled hundreds of great sentences in a file of mine, but when I examined, I realized most of them were designed to teach something to the reader. They contained some technique, some trick, some device that could be learned and replicated. The sentences below can be learned from, but that’s not their primary beauty. They are beautiful for the sake of beauty itself.

One last criteria for longer sentences: I want to see a narrative. By a narrative I mean some kind of turn from the beginning to the end. It doesn’t have to be a surprise, although it’s usually surprising. There needs to be a shift, an evolution, a gradation by the end. If the beautiful sentence ends and I’m still in the same place where I started, that’s a problem.

Lastly, if you like this list you might like some other lists at Bookfox:

But let’s stop talking about sentences and start looking at them.

100 Beautiful Sentences

1. “Undressing her was an act of recklessness, a kind of vandalism, like releasing a zoo full of animals, or blowing up a dam.”

– Michael Chabon

2. “Jack put his arm out the window, waving his hat like a visiting dignitary, backed into the street, and floated away, gentling the gleaming dirigible through the shadows of arching elm trees, light dropping on it through their leaves like confetti as it made its ceremonious passage.”

– Marilynne Robinson

3. “A sudden warm rainstorm washes down in sweet hyphens.”

– J.M. Ledger

4. “And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it.”

– Paul Harding

5. “Within seconds of that thought, the train entered Washington, where she was to come to her end more than sixty-eight years later, a mother to seven living and two dead, a grandmother to twenty-one living and three dead, a great-grandmother to twelve, a great-great grandmother to twins.”

– Edward P. Jones

6. “We were all a little drunk with spring, like the fat bees reeling from flower to flower, and a strange insurrectionary current ran among us.”

– Tobias Wolff

gorgeous beautiful sentences

8. “When he was dry, he believed it was alcohol he needed, but when he had a few drinks in him, he knew it was something else, possibly a woman; and when he had it all — cash, booze, and a wife — he couldn’t be distracted from the great emptiness that was always falling through him and never hit the ground.”

– Denis Johnson

9. “Lizards skit like quick beige sticks.”

– Richard Beard

10. “Saint Rufina, a famous woman who had been a very lovely young princess with long black hair who decided to give up her jewelry and become a nun and wear only the roughest clothes, and who died in a terrible way, by being eaten to death by wild dogs that ran through the church in the dead of wintertime, was in a special chapel all to herself, where one arm of her was set aside, that someone had scooped up and saved from the dogs, because everyone had loved her for her kindness and her healing ability.”

– Nicholson Baker

11. “I heard the sonic rip of a military jet, like a giant trowel being dragged through wet concrete, but saw only blue above, a raw and saturated blue that seemed cut from an inner wedge of sky.”

– Rachel Kushner

12. “The sky, at sunset, looked like a carnivorous flower.”

– Roberto Bolano

13. “His voice traveled like a drug dripped down the spiraling canals of their ears until they had forgotten everything, until they had forgotten their own names, until they turned and offered themselves up to him, their bodies sweet and soft as marzipan.”

– Ann Patchett

14. “Men are like armored things, mountainous assemblages of armor and leather, masonry even, which you are told will self-dismantle if you touch the right spot, and out will flow passionate attention.”

– Norman Rush

15. “We waited for the taxi beside the Holderlin pump, and by the faint light that fell from the living-room window into the well I saw, with a shudder that went to the roots of my hair, a beetle rowing across the surface of the water, from one dark shore to the other.”

– W.G. Sebald

16. “On the ground, in the cave, now wrapped in darkness, they found themselves airborne over hills and valleys, floating through blue clouds to the mountaintop of pure ecstasy, from where, suspended in space, they felt the world go round and round, before they descended, sliding down a rainbow, toward the earth, their earth, where the grass, plants, and animals seemed to be singing a lullaby of silence as Nyawira and Kamiti, now locked in each other’s arms, slept the sleep of babies, the dawn of a new day awaiting.”

– Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

17. “Inside us there is something that has no name, that something is what we are.”

– Jose Saramago

18. “The Captain’s wife played the harp; she had very long arms, silver as eels on those nights, and armpits as dark and mysterious as sea urchins; and the sound of the harp was sweet and piercing, so sweet and piercing it was almost unbearable, and we were forced to let out long cries, not so much to accompany the music as to protect our hearing from it.”

– Italo Calvino

19. “Sea and sky were a single ash-gray thing and the sands of the beach, which on March nights glimmered like powdered light, had become a stew of mud and rotten shellfish.”

– Gabriel Garcia Marquez

20. “In your life there are a few places, or maybe only the one place, where something happened, and then there are all the other places.”

– Alice Munro



 

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21. “The circle of an empty day is brutal and at night it tightens around your neck like a noose.”

Elena Ferrante

22. “In any case, at a certain point as she wandered out among the galaxies, among the whirling particles and ineffable numbers, something leaked in her mind, smudging the text of the cosmos, and she was lost.”

– Deborah Eisenberg

23. “And I still have other smothered memories, now unfolding themselves into limbless monsters of pain.”

– Vladimir Nabokov

24. “In our world, that’s the way you live your grown-up life: you must constantly rebuild your identity as an adult, the way it’s been put together is wobbly, ephemeral, and fragile, it cloaks despair and, when you’re alone in front of the mirror, it tells you the lies you need to believe.”

– Muriel Barbery

25. “Over the Tsushima Basin, they could hear the powerful clicks, like punches to the chest, of sperm whales hunting below, and nearing the island of Dogo, granite spires rose sudden from the sea, white up top from bird guano and orange below from great gatherings of starfish.”

– Adam Johnson

beautiful sentences

27. “His fate had taken him off two trains this morning, had raised him to the surface at Whitehall Street, had shown him the spinning atoms, unraveling, the end of life, all of them people tethered by love, and habit, and work, and meaning, tied into a meaning suddenly exploded, because contrary to all he had imagined, being tied, being known, did not keep you safe.”

– Claire Messud

28. “He knows your name and you know his, and you almost killed him and, because you got so close to doing so but didn’t, you want to fall on him, weeping, because you are so lonely, so lonely always, and all contact is contact, and all contact makes us so grateful we want to cry and dance and cry and cry.”

– Dave Eggers

29. “They were all scarecrows, blown about under the murdering sunball with empty ribcages.”

– Cynthia Ozick

30. “Everything was still bathed and saturated with her presence — higher, wider, deeper than life, a shift in optics that had produced a rainbow edge, and I remember thinking that this must be how people felt after visions of saints — not that my mother was a saint, only that her appearance had been as distinct and startling as a flame leaping up in a dark room.”

– Donna Tartt

31. “We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.”

– Michael Ondaatje

32. “As she picked up her shoes from the closet and tiptoed from the room, she felt, for a vertiginous moment, an unlawful excitement.”

– Paula Fox

33. “What I saw made me want to fell the highest spruce and watch it tip over and fall with a rush and a crash that echoed through the valley and trim it myself in record time and strip it clean myself without stopping even though that was the hardest thing to do and drag it to the river bank with my bare hands and my own back with neither horse nor man to help me and heave it into the water with the strength I suddenly knew I had, and the splash and the spray would rise as high as a house in Oslo.”

– Per Petterson

34. “He was sensitive to lives that had, beneath their surface, like a huge rock or shadow, a glory that would be discovered, that would rise one day to the light.”

– James Salter

35. “Each of her soothing utterances battered me more grievously than the last—as if I were traveling in a perverse ambulance whose function was to collect a healthy man and steadily damage him in readiness for the hospital at which a final and terrible injury would be inflicted.”

– Joseph O’Neill

36. “And maybe I tried with too much mettle — my lines might have mentioned the “Latin gusto” of her calves and hips in motion, and how the small blond hairs of her nape quelled my fear of becoming a “non crooning castrato” — because not four days after I posted the letter she arrived at the prison wearing an orange autumn dress, the strapless kind that could reverse a vasectomy.”

– William Giraldi

most beautiful sentences

38. “It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together.”

– Jeffrey Eugenides

39. “He’d say “I love you” to every man in the squad before rolling out, say it straight, with no joking or smart-ass lilt and no warbly Christian smarm in it either, just that brisk declaration like he was tightening the seat belts around everyone’s soul.”

– Ben Fountain

40. “I came to hate the complainers, with their dry and crumbly lipsticks and their wrinkled rage and their stupid, flaccid, old-people sun hats with brims the breadth of Saturn’s rings.”

– Karen Russell

41. “Maybe life doesn’t get any better than this, or any worse, and what we get is just what we’re willing to find: small wonders where they grow.”

– Barbara Kingsolver

42. “Around the beginning of this century, the Queen of Thailand was aboard a boat, floating along with her many courtiers, manservants, maids, feet-bathers, and food tasters, when suddenly the stern hit a wave and the queen was thrown overboard into the turquoise waters of the Nippon-Kai, where, despite her pleas for help, she drowned, for not one person on that boat went to her aid.”

– Zadie Smith

43. “Every native everywhere lives a life of overwhelming and crushing banality and boredom and desperation and depression, and every deed, good and bad, is an attempt to forget this.”

– Jamaica Kincaid

44. “As my grandfather went, arm over arm, his heart making sour little shudders against his ribs, he kept listening for a sound, the sound of the tiger, the sound of anything but his own feet and lungs.”

– Tea Obreht

45. “Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.”

– Iris Murdoch

46. “We all owe death a life.”

– Salman Rushdie

47. “In the deep gloom he could see the electric white gashes where the water boiled over the boulders.”

– Ron Carlson

48. “We are souls shut inside a cage of bones; souls squeezed into a parcel of flesh.”

– Michel Faber

49. “Profound was Gary’s relief the next morning as he bumped and glided, like a storm-battered yacht, into the safe harbor of his work week.”

– Jonathan Franzen

50. “Old lovers go the way of old photographs, bleaching out gradually as in a slow bath of acid: first the moles and pimples, then the shadings.”

– Margaret Atwood

51. “I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.”

– Annie Dillard

52. “Coming out into the late night and walking round the building with the secretive grating roll of the stony path beneath his steps, the evening throbbed back through him as blood thumps slowly, reliving effort, after exertion.”

– Nadine Gordimer

53. “Sometimes, when she’s out here alone, she can feel the pulse of something bigger, as if all things animate were beating in unison, a glory and a connection that sweeps her out of herself, out of her consciousness, so that nothing has a name, not in Latin, not in English, not in any known language.”

– T.C. Boyle

best beautiful sentences

55. “Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air.”

– Anthony Doerr

56. “Two weeks later, the tape arrived of the race and I memorized it, especially those last hundred yards, Wowie alone, heading for the finish line, his body rhythmically stretching and contracting as his four legs reached and folded, reached and folded.”

– Jane Smiley

57. “He had no right to be there, he had already been profoundly changed, he was no good at small talk, she was half naked, it was dawn and he loved her.”

– Mark Helprin

58. “At a certain point in her life, she realises it is not so much that she wants to have a child as that she does not want not to have a child, or not to have had a child.”

– Lydia Davis (have you ever seen such a beautiful sentence that hinges on tense alone?)

59. “Some nights in the midst of this loneliness I swung among the scattered stars at the end of the thin thread of faith alone.”

– Wendell Berry

60. “Home, we drank a little wine, put on some of that sticky saxophone music we used to keep around to drown out the bitter squeaks in our hearts.”

– Sam Lipsyte

61. “And so we stood together like that, at the top of that field for what seemed like ages, not saying anything, just holding each other, while the wind kept blowing and blowing at us, tugging our clothes, and for a moment, it seemed like we were holding onto each other because that was the only way to stop us from being swept away into the night.”

– Kazuo Ishiguro

62. “I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out.”

– Barry Hannah

63. “We laughed and laughed, together and separately, out loud and silently, we were determined to ignore whatever needed to be ignored, to build a new world from nothing if nothing in our world could be salvaged, it was one of the best days of my life, a day during which I lived my life and didn’t think about my life at all.”

– Jonathan Safran Foer

64. “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

– Jack Kerouac

65. “Heaven opened and the water hammered down, reviving the reluctant old well, greenmossing the pigless pigsty, carpet bombing still, tea-colored puddles the way memory bombs still, tea-colored minds.”

– Arundhati Roy

66. “The torch spit sparks and sent chunks of flaming tar spinning into the air behind her as she bolted across the cosmos — the only body in the heavens who was not held to a strict elliptical path.”

– Elizabeth Gilbert

67. “Figures dark beneath their loads pass down the far bank of the river, rendered immortal by the streak of sunset upon their shoulders.”

– Peter Matthiessen

68. “But it goes from bad to worse, and the moment he sets foot in Black’s room, he feels everything go dark inside him, as though the night were pressing through his pores, sitting on top of him with a tremendous weight, and at the same time his head seems to be growing, filling with air as though about to detach itself from his body and float away.”

– Paul Auster

69. “They were sorry, they were saying with their bodies, they were accepting each other back, and that feeling, that feeling of being accepted back again and again, of someone’s affection for you always expanding to encompass whatever new flawed thing had just manifested in you, that was the deepest, dearest thing he’d ever—”

– George Saunders

70. “Decisions are never really made – at best they manage to emerge, from a chaos of peeves, whims, hallucinations and all around assholery.”

– Thomas Pynchon

beautiful sentences

72. “The love I felt for her on that train ride had a capital and provinces, parishes and a Vatican, an orange planet and many sullen moons — it was systemic and it was complete.”

– Gary Shteyngart

73. “The week after Halloween had a quality both hungover and ominous, the light pitched, the sky smashed against the rooftops.”

– Jonathan Lethem

74. “Rather he consoled himself with the fact that, in the real world, when he looked closely into the darkness he might find the presence of a light, damaged and bruised, but a little light all the same.”

– Colum McCann

75. “For the first time in years, he felt the deep sadness of exile, knowing that he was alone here, an outsider, and too alert to the ironies, the niceties, the manners, and indeed, the morals to be able to participate.”

– Colm Toibin

76. “But these thoughts broke apart in his head and were replaced by strange fragments: This is my soul and the world unwinding, this is my heart in the still winter air.”

– Emily St. John Mandel (a finalist for beautiful sentences, more like poetry than prose)

77. “Life was neither something you defended by hiding nor surrendered calmly on other people’s terms, but something you lived bravely, out in the open, and that if you had to lose it, you should lose it on your own terms.”

– Edwidge Danticat

78. “There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.”

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

79. “But in another city, another valley, another ghetto, another slum, another favela, another township, another intifada, another war, another birth, somebody is singing Redemption Song, as if the Singer wrote it for no other reason but for this sufferah to sing, shout, whisper, weep, bawl, and scream right here, right now.”

– Marlon James

80. “His toe scuffs a soft storm of sand, he kneels and his arms spread in pantomimic celebration, the immigrant, as in every moment of his life, arriving eternally on the shore of his Self.”

– E.L. Doctorow

81. “Sleep is no longer a healing bath, a recuperation of vital forces, but an oblivion, a nightly brush with annihilation.”

– J.M. Coetzee

82. “The only cities were of ice, bergs with cores of beryl, blue gems within white gems, that some said gave off an odor of almonds.”

– Annie Proulx

83. He had no religious belief, but it was impossible not to think of an invisible presence or witness in the room, and that these words spoken aloud were like signatures on an unseen contract.”

– Ian McEwan

84. “And even if I recognized her strategy, her sneak attack, I was afraid that some unseen speck of truth would fly into my eye, blur what I was seeing and transform him from the divine man I thought he was into someone quite mundane, mortally wounded with tiresome habits and irritating imperfections.”

– Amy Tan

85. “Every person had a star, every star had a friend, and for every person carrying a star there was someone else who reflected it, and everyone carried this reflection like a secret confidante in the heart.”

– Orhan Pamuk

86. “Memory is a great deceiver, grief and longing cloud the past, and recollections, even vivid ones, fade.”

– Daniel Alarcon

87. “Over the city lies the sweet, rotting odor of yesterday’s unrecollected sins.”

– Hilary Mantel

Beautiful Sentences

89. “We need to develop a better descriptive vocabulary for lying, a taxonomy, a way to distinguish intentional lies from unintentional ones, and a way to distinguish the lies that the liar himself believes in – a way to signal those lies that could be more accurately described as dreams.”

– Rivka Galchen

90. “She understood as women often do more easily than men, that the declared meaning of a spoken sentence is only its overcoat, and the real meaning lies underneath its scarves and buttons.”

– Peter Carey

91. “The road ran away westwards in the mist of the early morning, running cunningly through the little hills and going to some trouble to visit tiny towns which were not, strictly speaking, on its way.”

– Flann O’Brien

92. “We had loving beautiful sex just as soon as we could get ourselves to stop talking — loving and beautiful in the expressionist, pathetic-fallacy sense in which you might say a meadow was loving and beautiful even if it was full of hamsters ready to kill each other on sight, but only when they’re awake.”

– Nell Zink

93. “And we know, until they stop their terrible motion, until they cease swooping and darting and banging into the walls, until they alight, come to rest, exhausted, spent, there is nothing at all we can do.”

– Nathan Englander

94. “He was still a handsome man, with a tanned, chiseled face and long, thick, wavy white hair, but his cells had begun to reproduce in a haphazard fashion, destroying the DNA of neighboring cells and secreting toxins into his body.”

– Michel Houellebecq

95. “You’re an insomniac, you tell yourself: there are profound truths revealed only to the insomniac by night like those phosphorescent minerals veined and glimmering in the dark but coarse and ordinary otherwise; you have to examine such minerals in the absence of light to discover their beauty, you tell yourself.”

– Joyce Carol Oates

96. “In fact, this particular memory is one she’ll return to again and again, for the rest of her life, long after Rolph has shot himself in the head in their father’s house at twenty eight: her brother as a boy, hair slicked flat, eyes sparking, shyly learning to dance.”

– Jennifer Egan

97. “Twenty were jammed together on the stoop, tiers of heads made one central head, and the wings rested along the banisters, a raggedy monster of boys studying her approach.”

– Leonard Michaels

98. “It was plain as the stars that time herself moved in grand tidal sweeps rather than the tick-tocks we suffocate within, and that I must reshape myself to fully inhabit the earth rather than dawdle in the sump of my foibles.”

– Jim Harrison

99. “Sometimes I wonder if Junior remembers anything, or if his head is like a colander, and the memories of who bottle-fed him, who licked his tears, who mothered him, squeeze through the metal like water to run down the drain, and only leave the present day, his sand holes, his shirtless bird chest, Randall yelling at him: his present washed clean of memory like vegetables washed clean of the dirt they grow in.”

– Jesmyn Ward

100. “So, as was often the case when he was alone and sober, whatever the surroundings, he saw a boy pushing his entrails back in, holding them in his palms like a fortune-teller’s globe shattering with bad news; or he heard a boy with only the bottom half of his face intact, the lips calling mama.”

– Toni Morrison (it’s suitable to end with Toni Morrison; she could be the queen of beautiful sentences)

 

If you just finished this list, you’re probably awash in beauty. Soak it up, soak it in, and do one of three things:

  • Tell me in the comments which one of the sentences above is your favorite sentence. (I know, right? How do you pick?)

  • What beautiful sentences do you consider your all-time favorites? Post them below. (aka: what did I miss?)

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43 Comments

  • Eric Tryon / March 23, 2016 at 7:40 pm Reply

    My 10 reactions after curling up this morning with a couple cups of coffee and these 100 beauties: 1. Thank you and congrats, John! This was immensely enjoyable and quite an impressive undertaking that you totally rocked. 2. It made me want to quit my job and write full time. 3. It made me want to quit my job and read full time. 4. It made me regret not tracking all my favorite sentences throughout my reading life, and for this I was a little sad. 5. My one request would be that I wish the book or story was also cited along with the author. 6. Tobias Wolff got on the list twice, the greedy bastard (#6 and #92). 7. 48 of 100 sentences contained a simile or metaphor. I don’t know what this means exactly, but I found that to be interesting. 8. I could not choose 1 favorite, but for what it’s worth, there were 8 sentences that I jotted down and re-read several times (1, 17, 20, 36, 40, 41, 50, 62). 9. A dress that could reverse a vasectomy!? What?! So brilliant! 10. There was 1 that made me cackle out loud – “I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out.” Beyond brilliant.

  • Tom C. Hunley / March 24, 2016 at 6:07 pm Reply

    “‘Show your cock,’ she said, and died again.” George Saunders, “Sea Oak”

  • Mari Stachenfeld / March 25, 2016 at 2:53 pm Reply

    My favorites are – Emily St. John Mandel and Denis Johnson. Alway Denis Johnson who to me is greatest depth, heart-piercing depth. Like Sherman Alexie. Your taste is a bit diff from mine: mine is more on the verge of pain, yours likes wisdom, indeed some wit as in the fact that many are figures of speech. For instance, 78. “There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie)” is brilliant, profound, and raises the question, the images of what those things are…it almost pierces my heart with memories of those things (concentration camps)….yet it plays with words…making a figure of its wisdom. You’ve done good work.

    • Bookfox (Author) / March 29, 2016 at 11:48 pm Reply

      I almost used the Denis Johnson sentence, “He knew every raindrop by its name,” but I thought this one was less quoted and just as good. And thanks for reminding me of Sherman Alexie — I’m making another list of sentences and I’m adding some quotes from him to it.

      And yeah, the Emily St. John Mandel just sings.

  • Connie Shackelford / March 28, 2016 at 11:45 pm Reply

    My favorite by far #95 — the insomniac. What a beautiful collection of sentences! I’m a beginning writer and have started a list of some of my favorites lines mainly from young adult fiction, but these are classics – full of deep thought. Thank you.

    • Bookfox (Author) / March 29, 2016 at 11:44 pm Reply

      I liked that Joyce Carol Oates #95, too. So much I included it in a roundup of Repetition Sentences, along with a little bit of commentary about the fascinating way she repeats “You tell yourself” at the beginning and the end.

      If you like YA, make sure you look at Buzzfeed’s 40 best sentences from YA novels.

  • Nancy Vala / April 5, 2016 at 3:16 am Reply

    Can’t decide between 2 and 58. My favorite sentence is by Sandra Cisneros from “Woman Hollering Creek.”

    “Salvador inside that wrinkled shirt, inside the throat that must clear itself and apologize each time it speaks, inside that forty-pound body of boy with its geography of scars, its history of hurt, limbs stuffed with feathers and rags, in what part of the eyes, in what part of the heart, in that café of the chest where something throbs and knows only what Salvador knows, inside that body too small to contain the hundred balloons of happiness, the single guitar of grief, is a boy like any other disappearing out the door, beside the schoolyard gate, where he has told his brothers they must wait.”

    • Bookfox (Author) / April 5, 2016 at 10:08 pm Reply

      That Cisneros sentence is amazing. It has so much emotion packed in it.

      I think #2, that Marilynne Robinson one, is the one I’ve thought about most since writing this list. It’s definitely in my top 10 favorite sentences. I love “gentling” as a verb. And I love the image of light as confetti. And the whole of the sentence is just so dignified, like all of her writing and (when I’ve met her) Robinson herself.

      The #58 Lydia Davis one takes a few reads to unpack it, I think. How many other sentences rely on tense alone for depth?

  • jennifer wooodworth / May 6, 2016 at 2:04 pm Reply

    What a wondrous thing to discover this morning! I was looking for places to sub my flash, somehow ended up here and am much the richer for it. Thank you very much. #31 is my favorite by a long way. I was sorry to see there was no Melville in your list–the man could write such beautiful sentences. He could go on and on with them for 600 entire pages! Check out Moby Dick, chapter 23, the lee shore, for example, the last two paragraphs. Or for a hilarious one, sentence 4 of chapter 1. But they are everywhere! I think Amy Hempel probably belongs on a list like this, too….I really loved reading it and thinking of my own favorite sentences over many years. Nice blog!

    • Bookfox (Author) / May 6, 2016 at 2:38 pm Reply

      I know, that #31 Michael Ondaatje is fantastic. Amy Hempel is a fantastic suggestion. Next time I’m looking up new beautiful sentences, I’ll have to go to her.

  • Bridget / June 7, 2016 at 4:31 pm Reply

    Absolutely impossible to pick a ‘favorite’ since I reacted to certain beautiful sentences strongly for different reasons: some because they tell SUCH a rich story, almost inviting me to finish that character’s day/life/story (Ben Fountain!! #39, Paula Fox!!#32, James Salter!!#34, Lydia David!!#58, Joseph O’Neill #35).

    Others I will keep and share because of their gorgeous language, but also their message: George Saunders!! #69, Barbara Kingsolver, #41, Alice Munro, #20, Saramago, #17, Pynchon #70, Alarcon #86, Peter Carey #90, Paul Harding.

    And then Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison because they are our master wordsmiths. No Philip Roth? Wordsmith #1, though he was generally reviewed through a different prism.

  • Emma / June 29, 2016 at 9:11 pm Reply

    These were lovely. #1 & #76 in particular.

    Nicole Krauss gets my vote. There are so many beautiful sentences from “A History of Love,” but I think this might be my favorite:

    “He ran his fingers down her spine, and for a moment he forgot the danger he was in, grateful for the world which purposefully puts divisions in place so that we can overcome them, feeling the joy of getting closer, even if deep down we can never forget the sadness of our insurmountable differences.”

  • K Finney / February 16, 2017 at 9:11 am Reply

    “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” – James Joyce, The Dubliners

    • Bookfox (Author) / February 16, 2017 at 11:17 am Reply

      One of the classics!

  • Cara / June 12, 2017 at 12:28 pm Reply

    This just made my day! Thanks for sharing it with us John.

  • Simryn / December 16, 2017 at 10:52 am Reply

    Ah lovely, moving, wise and beauteous.
    #21 and #66 because of the genre but 41,51,91,64, 98 and 70; not in that order!

  • Ron / February 26, 2018 at 12:17 pm Reply

    2 sentences, but brief, from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany: “O God – please give him back! I shall keep asking You”

  • Linda A. Fields / March 19, 2018 at 5:13 am Reply

    All good choices! There was one sentence I recall moving me…knocking me out of the story, making me reread and read a passage…in Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. (I wish I could quote it here.) It was a description of the Outer Banks. When I finished analyzing why it had gripped me so, I wanted to hang up my computer; I was kicking myself for not having the skill to produce that beauty.

  • Linda A. Fields / March 19, 2018 at 6:37 am Reply

    I searched for the passage. I think any one of these sentences would qualify:

    My writing is descriptive, and once in a while someone (who must have been whipped as a child for using excessive adjectives or, heaven forbid, an adverb) complains that my style is too wordy. I’m not comparing my writing in any way (I am NOT in his league), but when someone says I never met an adjective I didn’t like, I think of eloquent writing like this and simply smile:

    “It was growing dark on this long southern evening and suddenly, at the exact point her [his mother’s] finger had indicated, the moon lifted a forehead of stunning gold above the horizon, lifted straight out of the filigreed, light-intoxicated clouds that lay on the skyline in attendant veils. Behind us, the sun was setting in a simultaneous congruent withdrawal and the river turned to flame in a quiet duel of gold…. The new gold of the moon astonishing and ascendant, the depleted gold of sunset extinguishing itself in the long westward slide, it was the old dance of days in the Carolina marshes, the breathtaking death of days before the eyes of children, until the sun vanished, its final signature, a ribbon of bullion strung across the tops of water oaks. The moon then rose quickly, rose like a bird from the water, from the trees, from the islands, and climbed straight up—gold, then yellow, then pale yellow, pale silver, silverbright, then something miraculous, immaculate, and beyond silver, a color native only to southern nights.”

    – Pat Conroy, “The Prince of Tides”

  • Perrilee / April 10, 2018 at 10:59 am Reply

    62. “I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out.”

    – Barry Hannah

    A powerful amazing image that will never leave my mind, the need to be so safe yet of the world.

  • Christine Zeoli / June 20, 2018 at 5:48 am Reply

    I came upon the list because l am wondering how PBS can narrow 100 of the best novels of all time, and exclude Lord of the Flies, Homer, etc. so l started making a list of some of my favorites. In my effort to be thorough l find you. How intoxicating the written word can be. But how beautiful is this list. Like a gift when it’s not even your birthday.
    The quote l relate to is #58 , l am 56 never wanted children EVER, never apologized about my decision not to have them, and l know it was the best decision l ever made. So that quote really resonates. It made me feel like #90 and yet l haven’t slept in two days, three if I’m going to be truthful.
    I have two quotes l would like to share with you. In Barbara Kingsolver “Poisonwood Bible “ her crippled daughter many years later asks her mother “ why did you chose to save Ruth Mae ? And without hesitation she answers “Because a mother lives her children from the bottom up.,” With that one sentence l knew why l could never be my mother’s favorite. And it was no longer important. Thank you again, l wish l could say l was aquainted with ever book on your list. So today l will try to match the Authors quotes to the books. Thank you again. Christine Zeoli

  • Danny Hoang / June 29, 2018 at 2:50 am Reply

    Could you by chance also share the list of “instructional sentences” you mentioned?

    It’s just this list was so excellent, it gave me hope for more.

  • Vlad Zachary / July 17, 2018 at 1:16 pm Reply

    “Grown-up people’s tears were a mystical catastrophe, the sort of tears God sheds over the wickedness of mankind.”
    – Jean-Paul Sartr

  • Joe Jereb / August 16, 2018 at 9:36 am Reply

    I imagine it was hard to select one from Cormac McCarthy. You could almost select any book, any page at random. The first that came to mind was “What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them.”

  • Ronald Colandrea / August 30, 2018 at 2:00 pm Reply

    Not one Pat Conroy line. Wow !!! It’s amazing how opinions vary. I am baffled.

    • Bookfox (Author) / August 30, 2018 at 4:31 pm Reply

      Give me a few!

  • Frank / September 4, 2018 at 12:53 pm Reply

    Thomas Wolfe sentences that read like poetry are compiled in the book “A Stone A Leaf, A Door” . The exact words of Wolfe but placed in poem like order.

  • Alberto / September 23, 2018 at 8:48 am Reply

    Any uglier? I mean, most authors are unknown (maybe i am a classicist and to me a writer is somebody like -Italian spellings- Dostoevskij, Tolstoj, Stendhal, Dickens, Proust, Balzac, Maupassant, Hemingway) but then those sentences are mostly baroque, sometimes plain grotesque. That’s not how beauty is defined. In classicism beauty is subtle, it doesn’t try and doesn’t need to punch you into the eye. That just leaves a black eye and then one says “oh wow see how beautiful it struck me”. Sorry for having to disagree.

    • Bookfox (Author) / September 23, 2018 at 9:28 am Reply

      I wouldn’t call any of these authors unknown. They are modern authors, all with a relative amount of fame.

      I think you’re looking for the more typical, cliched list of beautiful sentences, by authors in the canon, and who tend to be dead. I didn’t make that type of list because there are already many lists out there like that.

      But if you didn’t like these sentences, I would recommend you offer a few examples of your own, so future visitors to this page (there are thousands every week) can compare yours to the ones above, and make their own judgements.

  • John Gillis / September 27, 2018 at 8:07 am Reply

    “Neither body ‘nor existence’ can be regarded as the original of the human being, since they presuppose each other, and because the body is solidified or general existence, and existence a perpetual incarnation.”

    Merleau-Ponty “Phenomenology of Perception” p. 166

    It doesn’t belong in this list, but on some list. Thank you for yours. Such awesome writers. Paul Harding because it is so helpful, and Calvino just because “Wow!”

  • Ken Ward / October 2, 2018 at 7:14 pm Reply

    My favorite sentence is a prose sentence from Steinbeck that sounds more like poetry to me: “Lee Chong’s grocery, while not a model of neatness, was a miracle of supply.”

  • Christopher R. Gonzalez / October 7, 2018 at 3:06 pm Reply

    GREAT article. I have a question. Are there any exercises you can recommend outside of analyzing what I read? I know there’s the write-every-day practice advice and coincidentally, I’ve been noting beautiful sentences in what I read now. But is there anything else I can do that would help me take my sentence writing from just descriptive to beautiful? I guess I feel like I’m little behind because I’ve always wanted to write stories, but I only began this journey 2-3 years ago. Thank you for your help.

  • Lou A de Torres / October 17, 2018 at 2:21 pm Reply

    57 “He had no right to be there, he had already been profoundly changed, he was no good at small talk, she was half naked, it was dawn and he loved her.”
    – Mark Helprin
    My favorite from this list.

  • Kenneth R. Ampel / November 3, 2018 at 7:09 pm Reply

    One of my favorite sentences is the opening of Mark Helprin’s book Sunlight and Shadow:

    If you were a spirit, and could fly and alight as you wished, and time did not bind you, and patience and love were all you knew, then you might rise to enter an open window high above the park, in the New York of almost a lifetime ago, early in November of 1947.

  • Kenneth R. Ampel / November 3, 2018 at 7:09 pm Reply

    Thank you for creating this list!

  • Tracy Marks / November 3, 2018 at 8:32 pm Reply

    Two passages from Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy:

    [on Boldwood]
    His equilibrium disturbed, he was in extremity at once. If an emotion possessed him at all, it ruled him. A feeling mastering him remained latent and totally stagnant or explosive and rapid, never slow. He was always hit mortally, or he was missed.

    [on Bathsheba]
    Bathsheba’s was an impulsive nature concealed by deliberation. An Elizabeth in brain and Mary Stuart in spirit, she often performed actions of the greatest temerity with a manner of extreme discretion. Many of her thoughts were perfect syllogisms; unluckily, they always remained thoughts. Only a few were irrational assumptions; but unfortunately, they were the ones which most frequently became deeds.

  • Tracy Marks / November 3, 2018 at 8:34 pm Reply

    My favorite opening paragraph of a novel:
    Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie:

    There was once, in the country of Alifbay, a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish, which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy even though the skies were blue. In the north of the sad city stood mighty factories in which (so I’m told) sadness was actually manufactured.

  • Elijah / November 26, 2018 at 1:28 pm Reply

    You spelt neighbouring wrong in the 94th sentence

    • Bookfox (Author) / November 26, 2018 at 7:03 pm Reply

      That’s the American way of spelling it. British spelling would be different.

  • Bridget Pitt / November 29, 2018 at 11:59 am Reply

    Reading these sentences filled me with the melancholy restlessness that I sometimes get from listening to Leonard Cohen too long, a desire to walk long hours in empty night time streets under muted but stubborn stars. Thank you for the journey. Very hard to pick a favourite, but Gary Shteyngart’s reflection on love (71) resonates with me right now.

  • Nancy S / November 29, 2018 at 12:59 pm Reply

    I just bought Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business in print (after listening to the audio) in order to study his sentences because, for me, they are not so much beautiful, as effective in revealing a character or a cast of characters in one sly twist. For example: “My mother was not one to dwell on unsightly or macabre things, but she spoke of Paul’s ugliness to my father with what was almost fascination.” Or: “There was a picture of Queen Victoria hanging in the library, and one look at her would tell you that anybody under her protection was in luck.” (Sorry, that’s two!)

  • Dean Lewis / December 4, 2018 at 12:02 pm Reply

    Words…little communication of actual happenings and emotions…..

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